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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

1013: Sanctuary from life's storms was at that simple crib, not in the citadels of wealth and power

Day 1013: Saturday, December 24, 2022

Sanctuary from life's storms was at that simple crib, not in the citadels of wealth and power.

TINA'S TEA - a Christmas reflection by Brother Toby

These are days, and nights, for sitting by the fire and hearing again parts of the long chronicle of human existence. The tales that have been handed down to us only have meaning when they connect with our individual experiences. And there are sacred stories in every person's life, and in every household, that need to be added to past lore.

Everything we ponder, and remember, on these days reflects some aspect of what matters most to us. Our thoughts do not always unfold in a deep and solemn way; sometimes it is humorous when we think about meetings of the divine and the human.

St. Luke's story of the first Christmas Eve is repeated many times each year. It is a good story, but I doubt things happened exactly the way we are told. Among other things, the sheep bother me. We read that there were shepherds watching their flocks when the angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them. There also appeared a throng of heavenly host singing away.

What were the sheep doing all this time? The ones I see in fields around our farm start running when a rabbit hops along. If they saw a great firework display of the glory of the Lord and were confronted with a clamoring throng of heavenly host, they would bolt over hill and dale with the shepherds chasing after them. No one would have made it to Bethlehem that night.

So I think it is best to forget the details and look at Luke's point. Simple, poor, humble, close-to-the-earth folks got to the child quickly and understood what was happening. Meanwhile the mighty, wise, rich, sweet-smelling crowd was so occupied with themselves they didn't have a clue about was going on. Sanctuary from life's storms was at that simple crib, not in the citadels of wealth and power.

Oh, I do believe it took heavenly guidance to get the shepherds to that crib. Somehow they had to stop thinking about wolves, the price of wool, girlfriends, and a good meal for a brief moment, and in that empty space they had to be open to the possibility that there might be something of great significance in the little things around them. Such as a light coming from a stable. I think that is the constant wonder of Christmas Eve to ignore the big things long enough to encounter the sacred moments. One of our family's memories has become an ongoing liturgy in our lives, reenacted each Christmas Eve. It started many years ago.

Tina was born with AIDS in 1988. In those days there were few life-extending options. A caring and very ill young woman asked us to be with her when she gave birth to Tina and to adopt her. There are three adults, and parents, in our family—Julie, Marti, and myself. We have been spiritual companions for many years. Our life with Tina was so joyful and powerful that we are still living with her, even though she died just before her third birthday. Everyone experiences different facets of Tina. Julie described her this way: Tina was happy and sure of herself, cute and charming, a bright whimsical pixie, who made every day delightful...She was always ready for celebrations, which she called "happies."

As her last Christmas approached, things were often not very happy for Tina, or us. Her immune system had collapsed. The infections were unrelenting and painful. On the day of Christmas Eve Tina became very ill. Julie and Marti rushed her to the hospital, a trip of about two hours from our farm. Late in the afternoon Marti called me. It looked very bad. Tina was comfortable but might not last the night. I put down the phone and turned around to face the other children and their questions. What was going to happen with Tina and with Christmas?

The high point of our Christmas Eve is when we each take a lantern and walk quietly up the hill to our little chapel. The kids and I did it that night, with the help of two friends. But there was, for me, considerable tension between this peaceful moment and my personal grief. I realized this might be Tina's last night of life, and yet there was a need to celebrate the birth of new life with the other children. They went to bed with peace and expectations for the morning. At the hospital Tina was in a deep sleep.

Marti, Julie, and I were on the phone later when the old farm clock tolled midnight. We read together a favorite passage from the Bible (Wisdom 18:14):

When peaceful silence lay over all,

and night had run the half of her swift course,

down form the heavens, from the royal throne,

leapt your all-powerful word...

We wished each other a blessed Christmas and prayed for Tina and all those other families keeping watch over their children that night. In her backpack Julie had a little bottle of Grand Marnier purchased for an eggnog that was never made. There were no glasses in the room. But for some reason, Tina's favorite toy tea set had come with her to the hospital. Solemnly, standing on either side of Tina, Julie and Marti poured the liqueur into the tiny cups and drank a toast.

Surprisingly Tina recovered the next day, and with a little pushing against normal procedure, left the hospital. It was a sweet and simple Christmas day. Our family was reunited for a few more precious months.

On every Christmas Eve we gather around the hearth at 2:00pm, which is midnight in Bethlehem. Whatever seasonal tasks are not done at that point are to remain undone! Lists are thrown away. Christmas begins. We light a fire, using the trunk of last year's tree and, like many others on this day, sing songs and share memories. At some point, Julie would bring out Tina's prized tea set and Marti would produce a bottle of Grand Marnier.

In the following moments we would again feel the presence of Tina and all who have been an important part of our life, and our Christmases. We share reflections about the homeless family in Bethlehem and all the families under stress in our own times. At some point a holy quiet envelopes us. Time creases to exist, and we know we rest on sacred ground.

Then, like Christmas bells, the children jubilantly bring out special treats, and for the first of many times we embrace each other with hopes for a happy and blessed Christmas. It is a party at which some guests are only present with us in spirit—but we are together. It is that connection with the past and the present, and perhaps the future, but most of all with each other, which I hope is present in every home where people gather on this day.

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